Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Academic Exercises - K.J. Parker

K.J. Parker is an author whose prose I’ve always enjoyed; on the other hand, nobody else ever seems to have read any of their work, and that is, frankly, a crime. As such, today we’re going to talk about Parker’s short fiction anthology, ‘Academic Exercises’ – which doesn’t require any knowledge of existing series to read through, and is, not to give the game away, really rather good.

The text collects a variety of Parker’s short fiction; some of it has been available before in the form of novella (e.g. ‘Purple and Black’, an epistolary tale of ambition, power and trust), and some of it has even been made available for free in the publisher’s ongoing magazine (the marvellous ‘Let Maps to Others’, discussing the value and necessity of document authenticity, in a thick stew of revenge). There’s also a set of work I hadn’t seen before, which may well mean it’s new – it’s certainly new to me.

So, what makes this anthology worth reading? Immediately, two things: first, the quality of Parker’s prose. Each story is written in the first person, and each inner monologue is presented with their own voice – across all the different stories, the narrators are easily distinguishable from each other, which is quite an achievement. Tonally, the narrators are quite similar – there’s a dry, grim, resigned wit that permeates Parker’s work, and whilst it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it’s often amusing.
At the same time, the words themselves are a pleasure to read – well crafted, with excellent description of both worlds and ancillary characters. The latter are perhaps not as well drawn as the main characters – but that may be a factor of the first person narrative form.

So, the first reason to read Parker’s work is that the setting is well drawn, the characters feel like people, and the whole is both cohesive and a pleasure to read.

What’s the second reason?

Parker unflinchingly approaches larger themes through their characters, and unrelentingly pursues all sorts of complex aspects of the human experience. The stories aren’t afraid to talk about history, for example –a bout what makes a thing authentic, and what makes people that way too. It doesn’t shy away from philosophy, and several of the narratives explore the strands of thought around the question of whether the motivation for actions matters, or merely the result.

Alongside these broader themes there are characters who are very clever indeed, and use that cleverness to drive their own actions – in many cases, dragging the reader after them kicking and screaming. By no means does “intelligent” equate with ‘nice’. Within these characters, the author throws in a lot fo the deeper human emotions – fear, loss, pride, revenge, and drills into their often catastrophic effect on the human condition. Each protagonist is convincingly portrayed, and the end result is that I, for one, couldn’t stop turning pages.

Parker is also a wonderful writer of the twist denouement; this is less obvious in their other work, but most, if not all of the short stories presented here have at least one sting in the tail. This is perhaps an issue, in the context of reading the entire collection back-to-back; I started looking for plot twists, even expecting them, rather than just letting them surprise me – but that’s not a fault of the stories themselves, so much as an observance of a common theme in the author’s work.

There’s a few non-fiction articles thrown in here for good measure, on the rise and development of weapons and armour – and these are written in the same accessible style, and quite entertaining. It would be nice to see the references used for these, but in context, they’re still very interesting.
At any rate, at the close of the book, I’d say K.J. Parker is writing some of the smartest, sharpest, most well observed prose available in the genre today – and that this collection would serve as a good intro to their style and body of work, if you wanted to dip your toe in the water.

Note: The collection is currently available electronically as part of the Humble Books Bundle, which is where I got my copy; it’s been quite hard to get hold of in paper form, so this might be a good time to pick up the e-copy, if you’re interested.

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